Given that much of the world has been beleaguered by the coronavirus pandemic — and the subsequent lockdowns, bending of health care systems, economic downturns and political divide — concerns have risen that the Islamic State group, or ISIS, has and will continue to exploit the distraction to sustain its global reign of terror.
“ISIS views the global pandemic as an opportunity to weaken its enemies further. Governments are trying to maintain their focus on international security issues at the same time they are addressing a global health crisis that is also sparking an economic crisis,” Counter Extremism Project (CEP) Senior Researcher Josh Lipowsky told Fox News.
“ISIS recognizes that and sees opportunities to take advantage of increased fears among civilian populations, as well as governments that are refocusing and stretching their resources.”
In March, just as stay-at-home orders were taking hold across the United States, ISIS — via its weekly publication al-Naba — called on its operatives to strike against the West.
“ISIS sees the entirety of the West as an enemy of Islam guilty of destroying its physical caliphate. ISIS has incorporated the COVID-19 pandemic into its propaganda, praising it as divine punishment for the West,” Lipowsky explained. “At first, ISIS called on its followers to avoid areas affected by the coronavirus, but now ISIS has realized it can capitalize on the fear caused by the pandemic.”
Last month, German authorities foiled an alleged ISIS plot — purportedly hatched by fighters from Tajikistan — to attack U.S. military facilities. Also in April, France’s counterterrorism authorities opened an investigation after a Sudanese man went on a broad-daylight knife spree in Romans-sur-Isère, according to France 24, in which two people were killed. The suspect, who stole a knife from a local butcher shop, is believed to have been linked to an outside extremist outfit.
Moreover, police across Europe are reported to be probing whether ISIS cells are being quietly reignited as lockdown measures drag on. In April, the U.K.’s most sought-after ISIS fugitive Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary was apprehended in Spain, and a Moroccan national was arrested earlier this month under suspicion he was planning an attack.
However, the place that has seen the most significant uptick in activity amid the public health calamity is Iraq, military analysts caution. While territorially defeated in the country it once controlled more than a third of almost three years ago, the extremist outfit has maintained s simmering presence across the distracted and politically fraught nation.
“The Islamic State has indeed tried to make the most of the coronavirus pandemic, unleashing a wave of attacks across Iraq that also collide with the holy month of Ramadan, which jihadis have made much of in recent years as the month of conquest,” Raphael Gluck, founder of the terrorist monitoring site Jihadoscope, pointed out.
“Since the loss of its caliphate, ISIS has really been fighting a guerilla warfare-style campaign, going back to the way it used to be before those huge land grabs of 2014. ISIS is encouraging fighters to rally onward in the shadow of the plague.”
It has significantly accelerated attacks in remote northern Iraqi villages, taking advantage of the perfect storm of a pandemic, tensions between Iran and the U.S., long-running protests against Tehran’s meddling, and the sharp drop in oil prices.
Over the past week alone, ISIS militants have set fire again to Qarachogh heights near Mosul, wounded several Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) soldiers at their checkpoints in northern Diyala province, and launched a series of deadly attacks as the holy month of Ramadan draws down — including in the historic Babylon province south of Baghdad.
Iraqi military officials also told Fox News that they had steep concerns over the reactivation of sleeper cells napping in Salahuddin, Makhmour, Diyala and the ancestral Christian homeland of the Nineveh Plains.
“There has been an increase daily, a lot of hit-and-run attacks and the killing of police and army officers,” one Iraqi defense specialist, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said. “They are active on many fronts.”
The threat of coronavirus has also compelled the U.S-led military coalition, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, to halt some components of its campaign in Iraq and Syria, while Iraq’s forces have also had to enforce curfews and make operational changes. Several European countries have also pulled out their troops from coalition and NATO training missions in a bid to stop the spread of the novel pathogen.
In neighboring Syria, local forces battling to keep ISIS cells at bay say their struggle has risen twofold since the pandemic onset more than two months ago.
“Without a doubt, ISIS has taken benefit from the emergence of coronavirus and have been able to re-establish a presence in some regions which they had lost,” Mehmud Faruq Ibrahim, co-chair of the Bureau for Civil Affairs in the Civil Administration of Deir-Ez-Zor, near the Iraq border, told Fox News on Wednesday. “There are gunmen loyal to ISIS who refuse any attempt to find a solution. We don’t believe that they have been defeated, because they still command large numbers. Recently, they have become bolder in their actions.”